An authoress with Bilston connections

G. A Loach

Sophia Amelia Prosser (née Dibdin) was born in Islington on May 17th 1807, the seventh of eleven children born to Charles Isaac Mungo Dibdin (1768-1833), proprietor and acting manager of Sadler’s Wells theatre, and his actress wife, Mary Bates. 

The household in which Sophia grew up would almost certainly be colourful and stimulating.  Her grandfather, Charles Dibdin the elder (1745-1814) was, in his day, one of the most celebrated writers of patriotic and sentimental songs in Britain, his most well-known piece being Tom Bowling.  He had famously worked, and quarrelled with, the actor David Garrick at the first Shakespeare Festival in Stratford in 1769 and he was also a friend of the famous clown, Grimaldi 

As Sophia was growing up, her father was writing and staging burlettas, pantomimes, harlequinades, songs and spectacles and it seems reasonable to assume that Dibdin’s children would be a willing and enthusiastic audience for these productions.  Charles the Younger, as he was generally known, in tune with the Abolitionist mood of the time, used his skills as a composer to cast shame on the oppressors of slaves.

Deprived of whatever endears us to life,
His country, his freedom, his children and wife..

The family also knew less happy days.  Three of Sophia’s siblings died in early childhood and her mother died shortly after her Sophia’s birthday.  Of her surviving brothers and sisters, both Mary Anne and Henry Edward were accomplished harpists and her brother knew Mendlessohn personally. 

Her younger sister, Ann Augusta was an accomplished pianist, described by their father as “never out of tune in either playing or in temper”[1]  She took the post of music teacher at a girls’ school in Taunton which was the seminary of Miss Prosser, the sister of Sophia’s future husband. 

The link between stage and pulpit seems to have been not totally unexpected in the Dibdin household.  Charles Dibdin the Younger was remembered as “a man who strongly believed in the established church and state, and who upheld strict moral values.  Sophia was to marry William Prosser (1809-1884), a surgeon at the time of their marriage, in 1830 in Taunton, Somerset. 

The marriage was greeted with warm approval by Charles Dibdin the younger.

I shall usher in the year 1807 with a circumstance which did not occur until May 17th that the regular thread of my narrative may not be broken, when I come to that period, but the entrance upon the scene of a character not connected with the business of the Theatre; and this character is our seventh child, Sophia Amelia, who on the first day of the present year was married to a surgeon of eminence, and of most respectable family, at Monmouth, named Prosser; and if she makes as good a wife as she has ever been a daughter, the estimable qualities of her husband ‑ for such he possesses  ‑ will have obtained their desert. [2]

The couple’s early married life was spent in Monmouth.[3]   The couple had six children of whom three survived: William, born 1832 and later to be vicar of Bilston, Sophia Amelia (b. 1836) and Eleanor Bond (b. 1840) .    Frederick (b1833) and the twins Harriet and Mary Ann (b1837) died in infancy.  At some point in the 1840s William Prosser appears to have abandoned his career as surgeon in order to enter the Church.  By 1851 the family were living in Belmont, Shrewsbury[4] where the ever adaptable Sophia was teaching in a boarding school for young ladies, assisted by her daughter, also named Sophia Amelia.  This presumably helped support the family and put a roof over their heads while her husband was curate of St. Auckmund’s. 

Meanwhile William was enjoying academic success, initially at King William College, Isle of Man, where he became Head of School and later at Oxford University.  After an initial spell as a curate in Durham, where he married Emily Ullathorne in 1858, William’s early career took him to Beckenham, Fife in Scotland and to Wrockwardine, Shropshire in 1868.

Sophia’s writing career seems to have begun in the 1860s. By now, her children had grown up and her husband established as vicar of Ashby Folville in Leicestershire.  She went on to write over thirty books as well as short stories for Sunday at Home – a Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading. In his History of Bilston, G. T. Lawley quotes an article from this magazine[5]:

Mrs Prosser was the granddaughter of the well-known Dibdin, and seemed to have inherited much of his peculiar vivacity.  She did not begin to write for the press till she was past fifty, but her magazines from the first found ready acceptance, and she soon secures a wide circle of readers. 

Her stories were distinguished by her cheerful piety, unaffected simplicity of faith , and large charity.  She delighted in portraying the rural poor, amongst whom as a clergyman’s wife she had large experience, and was exceedingly happy in presenting their brighter traits as well as the foibles which are common to human nature.  Amongst her numerous contributions to the Sunday at Home, we might specify as a good illustration of her characteristics, “Quality Fogg’s Old Ledger,” in which she portrays the transformation of a self-righteous man under the influence of trouble.  She wrote also many longer tales dealing with more varied life, amongst which may be mentioned “The Man in Possession” and “The Awdries and their Friends” which appeared in The Leisure Hour.  In these more secular productions her native humour had free play and her dramatic and conversational powers came into exercise.  She contributed also to that journal a series of “Original Fables”, in which, under quaint guise, many lessons of homely wisdom were taught.  They were afterwards issued as a volume illustrated by Weir and Griset, and won from no less a humorist than Mr Spurgeon the comment that she was “a peeress among parable makers.”

At least one of her books appears to have drawn on her experience of living with her son in Bilston.  How Jarvis Got His House is subtitled An Incident of Life in the Black Country.

The opening paragraphs capture the part rural, part industrial landscape:

It was dinner time; four or five men lay about on the turf, others were still busy eating.  The sun shone in its full strength on the spot, but they were partly sheltered by a line of trucks, and not being troubled by trifling discomforts, nor careful about complexions where the shadow did not fall, it signified nothing to those who were more exposed.

Work was going on upon the road which the Common on one side bordered.  Lines were being laid for a tramway between the town close at hand and its neighbour a few miles away.  Many hands were employed, some being properly pitmen who had been obliged to give up their ordinary labour on account of water in the coal-pit.

The next paragraph is revealing about Sophia’s attitude.

The reader, very likely, has never been in the Black Country, as the region of coal and iron in the Midland Counties is called;  if so, he should not suffer a dark name or prejudice to keep him away from it.  There is a strange weirdness in its beauty; but beauty to an artistic eye, it certainly has.

In the Internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the contributor is rather dismissive of the literary merit of Mrs Prosser’s work:

The books are generally exceedingly slim novellas or collections of short stories.  They are not considered of the highest literary standard, and represent a style lampooned by the author Lewis Carroll.

Perhaps the time has come for a re-appraisal of her work.  Although not of comparable literary merit with the work of, for example,  her contemporary George Eliot, the books are wide-ranging in their subject matter, giving an interesting and valuable insight into Victorian life, often focussing on the poor and disadvantaged.   She successfully combines descriptions of people and places with a lively dialogue and narrative insights.  Characters are well drawn and treated with a mixture of humour and compassion.  If the moralising is not to our modern taste, it should be remembered that the books were written for a particular audience and should be seen in the context of the time.

It is not, as yet, clear how long Sophia actually lived in Bilston, although it seems likely that she was a regular visitor to St. Luke’s Vicarage before her final move.  In 1861, the Prosser parents were living in Ashby Folville, Leicestershire, where William senior was vicar.  In the 1871 census, they are living in Loughborough, apparently in retirement as her husband’s profession is given as “Clergyman of the Church of England without care of souls”.  By 1881 both were living in Bilston at 69, Wellington Street,,[6] where the household included Mary Nixon, from Oadby in Leicestershire whose occupation is given as both Domestic servant and nurse, and Ann Webberley from Lichfield,, a General Servant.

Sophia died aged 74 in March 1882 at S. Luke’s Vicarage after what was described as a brief illness.  A report of her funeral in the Bilston Weekly Herald  states that, “although resident only 4 or 5 years in Bilston, she had been regarded as, “a most charitable lady without any form or wish of display.” 

By September that year, a new organ was installed in St. Luke’s Church, “designed by her family and friends as a memorial of the worth and work of the late Mrs Prosser”.  The Dean of Lichfield, in his sermon, said that “Few in Bilston knew her in her quiet retired life, or knew, except by report, her sweet patience, her large benevolence, and her sound common sense.  She died, as she had always lived, in the love of God.”

The instrument, a powerful one, was built by Nicholson and Lord of Walsall.  The great organ has the following stops:  Open diapason, stop diapason, dulcinea, principal, 15th, flute and cremorna;  the swell as double diapason, open diapason gedact, viol de amour, principal, hautboy, harmonic piccolo and cornopean.  It has five composition pedals, and a new rocking pedal for the swell. 

Two years later, on June 28th 1884, William Prosser senior died at the age of 85.  Although his death took place in Leicestershire, he was laid to rest in Bilston Cemetery alongside his wife and two of their children. 

The family it seems, adopted Bilston as their home as a matter of choice in preference to the sophisticated metropolitan background of Sophia and the more rural Welsh origins of the Prossers.  Sadly, at time of writing, there is no record of whether the organ, or any other of the memorials to Sophia’s family, survived the demolition of S. Luke’s Church in the 1970s.  


[1] Memoirs of Charles Dibdin the Younger

[2] Rough copy of Memoirs of Charles Dibdin the Younger, Chap 1 (2nd), 1806-8 p 159  (Mary Bole).  Mary Bole is a descendant of Charles and Mary Dibdin.

[3] 1841 census

[4] 1851 census

[5] Lawley, G. T. A History of Bilston 1893

[6] 1881 census

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